5 mistakes in legal translation

Few areas are as sensitive as the area of law: a bad legal translation can have catastrophic consequences… literally speaking.

Few areas are as sensitive as the area of law: translators have no right to make any mistakes. Misinterpretation can have consequences which can be… literally speaking, catastrophic. Here’s five examples of mistakes in legal translations:

1851: unclear treaty for abused island

In 1851, Spain and the Sultanate of Sulu, in the Philippines, signed a peace treaty after three years of Spanish attacks. It looks like the translation agency they worked with didn’t feel so concerned by challenges of legal translation. Because of this lack of concern, the Spaniards left, convinced that the Sultan had accepted their sovereignty, while the Sultan considered that this was in fact a treaty between equal parties. The story doesn’t stop there: in 1878, the same sultanate signed an agreement with the British commercial syndicate. What was then the problem? The English version described this as a sale, the sulu version as a rental…

1889: power or duty, that’s the question

In the Italo-Ethiopian Treaty of Perpetual Peace and Friendship signed in Wuchale in 1889, Article 17 states, in its Ethiopian version, that the African country would be “entitled to avail itself of the Italian government in its external relations”. This version, written in Amharic, uses a verb expressing possibility. However, the Italian version is a bit more restrictive: the verb in question expresses obligation. As a direct consequence, the latter makes Ethiopia an Italian protectorate. As an indirect consequence, the first Italo-Ethiopian war.

1967: a mistake that pleases (almost) everybody

There are some legal translation mistakes that seem to have been tailor-made to please everybody. This is the case of Resolution 242 of the UN Security Council that was adopted in 1967 following the Six-Day War in Israel and Egypt. If the English version –which was meant to satisfy the interests of the US and England– talks about an Israeli withdrawal “from occupied territories” (from the territories occupied during the recent conflict), the French version is much more restrictive and better adapted to General de Gaulle’s views since it talks about a withdrawal “from the territories occupied during the recent conflict”.

1945: and boom!

There are harmless translation mistakes, serious translation mistakes and… catastrophic translation mistakes. At the end of July 1945, the Allies sent an ultimatum to Japan. The Japanese response contained the polysemic expression mokatsu, which can mean “think” but also “reject” or “ignore”. As a way to save time, the Japanese Prime Minister used mokatsu in the meaning of “think”. However, the translator translated the term as “reject”. What was the outcome? Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

1991: a too-present past

From one “bomb” to another, to finish on a lighter note: Antónia Bálint, crowned Miss Hungary in 1991, lost her title some time later when some of her old nude pictures printed in various publications resurfaced. She was rehabilitated in 1997 by the court, and received damage compensation. The year Bálint won, the original policy, which was written in English, had introduced the ban on publishing nude pictures in present and in the future. In the translation, the past was added…

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